Looking beyond the economies of gaming

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In the midst of the 2004 tribal-state compact renegotiations with
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, I recall glancing over a draft
agreement and shaking my head in bewilderment. In exchange for additional
slot machines, the state not only was seeking a share of tribal government
revenues that went far beyond the existing corporate tax rate, but it was
demanding deep concessions in the sovereign right of tribes to govern our
own affairs.

Schwarzenegger also was seeking the right to impose state environmental
controls on tribal trust lands. He wanted the right to dictate the extent
of economic development on our land. The state even wanted access to
construction change orders.

The document was an affront to tribal sovereignty and the ability of the
San Manuel Band of Mission Indians to govern within its jurisdiction and
regulate its tribal enterprises. There was no acknowledgement in the
document of San Manuel as a government. It was as if we were a poorly
managed and corrupt corporation.

I turned to our tribal attorney, Jerry Levine. "What are we doing?" I
asked. "Why are we doing this?" Levine shrugged.

Some tribes put their pens to the paper. San Manuel and others - the
Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and
the Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians - walked out of negotiations,
leaving the insulting document on the table.

San Manuel walked away from negotiations because it was strictly about
business. There was no discussion about politics or government or social
issues.

When questioned by reporter Jim Sweeney of Copley News Service, I said:
"I'd rather close my casino than give away any more of my tribe's
sovereignty."

There is no debating that gaming has proven most beneficial throughout much
of Indian country. For the first time in some 200 years, the first
Americans have an opportunity to share in the American dream.

But states, the federal government and even tribal governments have gone
far astray of the intent, if not the letter of the law, of the Indian
Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

Looking at the first tribal-state compacts signed following passage of
IGRA, the trend is disturbingly clear. Agreements inked by the Minnesota,
Wisconsin and Nevada tribes and agreed to by the Mississippi Band of
Choctaw Indians, clearly adhered to the intent of IGRA, which was to help
strengthen tribal governments and develop tribal economies.

Even the compacts reached as late as 2000 by the California tribes - which
included controversial components and side agreements dealing with
regulation of gaming and organized labor - recognized the sovereignty of
Indian nations.

But we have in the last decade dramatically and tragically strayed from the
intent of IGRA. Not only have recent compacts called for onerous revenue
sharing by the states - a gross violation of the prohibition in IGRA
against taxation of tribal government revenues - but there have been
numerous and often outrageous intrusions on sovereignty and the right of
tribes to govern their own lands.

Much of the fault lies with state governments using techniques tantamount
to political, legal and economic extortion to grasp tribal revenues in an
effort to bail them out of budget deficits and fiscal crisis that were not
of our making. Increasingly, state governments have a distorted sense of
entitlement to tribal gaming revenues.

The federal government must share the blame. Through the actions of the
Department of the Interior and BIA, the federal government has abdicated
its trust responsibility to the tribes by approving compacts that were
patently absurd, violating the intent if not the letter of IGRA.

Tribes must also share the blame.

Too many tribes have gotten caught up in making money. Too little attention
is being paid to housing, education, health care and other basic
governmental priorities and obligations. Scant attention is directed to
diversifying tribal economies to prepare for the day when tribal nations no
longer have an exclusive on gambling. And that day is coming quickly.

Tribes need to preserve traditions and the Indian way of life. Not enough
effort is being directed to rebuilding tribal nations destroyed by years of
misguided federal policies, poverty and neglect. We need to construct an
infrastructure of strong tribal government and laws to sustain us for the
remainder of this century and beyond.

Most important, we need not just to practice sovereignty, but to practice
sovereignty in a responsible manner, respectful of what impact the actions
we take today will have on other Indian nations tomorrow.

Certainly as Native nations we are all very different people. But we are
bound by the struggle to preserve our inherent rights to self-reliance and
self-governance, a concept under increasing attack by the public, the
press, the courts and on Capitol Hill. Concessions in sovereignty made by
tribes will reverberate throughout the entire country.

Much of our future is not in our hands. It is in the hands of a largely
non-Indian economy; a public that is growing tired of gaming and more
cynical and suspicious of casino development on Indian lands; a high court
that is turning aside long held legal opinions on Native American
sovereignty; a political system built not of fairness, but self-interest
and disloyalty.

So we do what we can, knowing that while it is important to build an
economy, it is more important to preserve and strengthen our governments,
our traditions, our values and our way of life. Our children and
grandchildren and the generations to come will be judged by what we do
today. We must look to the future. We cannot afford to make any mistakes.

Deron Marquez is chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.